What is it that makes a catchy, memorable song? And is writing those melodies a talent or a skill? Unlike many of the other facets of music production, a large number of producers view melody writing as some kind of innate skill, or at the very least that some people are just born with the talent to write better melodies than others. While this may be true, it’s probably best to think about it like any other skill; perhaps you will never be the next Mozart, but you can certainly get better if not extremely good with proper practice.

So what is it that allows someone to write good melodies? And how can you learn that skill? One way to look at it is that a skilled melody writer has a large “bag of tricks” to draw from, and that learning melody writing is all about building and using that bag of tricks.

Melody Writing: The “Bag Of Tricks”

So what exactly is the bag of tricks? Well, if you listen to enough music with a critical ear, you may start to notice some patterns in really popular melodies. Perhaps they share a particular chord progression; perhaps they follow similar rhythms, or perhaps they have a particular structure. For example, the classic side-chained pad found in house and trance is a form of rhythmic “trick” that is common to those genres (among others). In particular, it is an example of something known in music as “syncopation” which is putting “stress” on the offbeat. Likely you’ve made something that uses this before! So this is something that might be in your very own bag of tricks. Other common ones include the side-chained sub or the psytrance trick of putting bass notes on the offbeat.
At this point, you may be saying to yourself “but these examples aren’t explicitly melodies, they’re to add feeling to the pads, or to make mixing the bass easier”. The key takeaway is that these are simple examples of melodic tricks, that when combined with other things help bring melodies to life and make them shine.
If you want to have a specific course on how to write melodies, here is a useful course that will let you do so.

Melody Writing: How To Expand The Bag Of Tricks

Experiment, experiment, experiment…

I learned how to play guitar at the end of elementary school, and really wanted to write songs when I was in high school. Let me tell you, my first songs were terrible, and had melodies that even my own mother wouldn’t want to listen to. What I did though was to take every opportunity to “write” melodies; whether that’s playing a solo over a backing track, or to play around with no end goal in mind. Eventually what happened is I would stumble across things I liked, whether that was some particular fingering pattern or a rhythm that made me want to bob my head. I didn’t consciously remember these things, but they stuck with me and later on as I developed as a player, they became things that I could draw on to fit whatever it was I had to compose.
Another thing I did a lot was through music I liked, because learning how others structured their melodies gave me other things to draw on. For example; one of my favorite bands, Polyphia, does this thing where they slide in and out of notes all the time. I love the sound of that, so I started doing it myself. The sliding in and out of notes is a “trick” that I added to my own bag.
So how can you do this if you don’t play an instrument? Well, the general idea is to both spend time making your own melodies and learning how to make the melodies of the artists you like. Just pull up the piano roll in your DAW, and mess around. At first, you may not like what you hear, but I promise you that the more you do this, the more you will just stumble across things you like, and they will become part of your very own “bag of tricks.”

You May Also Like: How To Make Chords Melody?

Melody Writing: Things in my bag

“Establish, alter, repeat, flip”

The trick I use by far the most often is something I have heard called “establish, alter, repeat, flip”, although it is known quite often as a particular form of “call and response”. This is one of those things that once it’s pointed out to you, you will hear it everywhere.

Here’s what you do:

1. Write a simple melody, let’s call this A.
2. Write a melody that is similar to A but slightly different, call this B.
3. Write a melody that is different from A and B, but complements A. Call this C.
4. You now have a new melody in the form ABAC.
In more complicated forms, you may hear melodies that take the form AB-AC-AB-AD, but the general idea is the same: repeat the same melody multiple times, have a slightly different melody in between instances of the main melody, and a more different melody the last time. There are literally thousands of examples of this being used in mainstream modern music, but here are a few obvious ones:

The “metal” approach to arps:

Let’s say you have a chord progression and a very basic melody, and you want that basic melody to sound more “driving” or “powerful”. Why not take a trick from one of the most “driving” and “powerful” kinds of music, metal? One trick used a lot in that genre, is to play a melody and to fill all of the spaces with the root notes of the underlying chord progression.
And here is the same melody using the metal approach:
Additionally, you can try doing little “mini arps” of the root note octaves like so:

“Slapback” delay:

This one is fun to play around with. Basically, take a very short element with a decent transient, and write a rhythm in the piano roll that is 16th notes at 8th note intervals like below:
Now, load on your favourite delay of choice, turn it up so it’s equal levels of wet and dry, and set the feedback to happen at 3/16 (in some delays this may be notated differently, basically you want it to be exactly in between 8 times a bar and 4 times a bar)
You may need to play with feedback levels, but what you end up with is an interesting kind of arp sound.
This is a very well known technique in guitar circles, but I haven’t heard it utilized that often in EDM. Some examples from released songs are:

  1. The bridge in Children of Bodom’s “Children of Decadence”.
  2. Paul Gilbert’s “The Echo Song”.
  3. Ewan Dobson’s “Time 2”.

Writing huge chord melodies:

This one is fairly simple:
1. Choose a chord progression, and write a bass line in the piano roll.
2. Double the bass line an octave higher.
3. Write in various notes in the chord in the same rhythm as the doubled bass line.
4. Write a melody that is the same rhythm as the chords you have made.
If you did this all in the same instrument, you now have a huge melody of chords.
This is used by Avicii quite often (for example in Sunset Jesus), and in songs like Arty’s “Kate

“Dancing around”

Suppose you have a chord progression, and you’re writing a melody. One way to make it sound like it resolves is to make sure that the very first note of the melody is the root note of the underlying chord, and for the notes at the very end of the progression to deliberately avoid hitting that note. Very simple idea, but it gives the listener the sense that the melody distinctively “ends”.
For example, here is a pluck melody that doesn’t do this:
Same pluck slightly modified, so that it does:
For another example, here is an arp melody that doesn’t do this:
Same arp melody slightly modified so that it does:

“Focus On The Rythm”

Finally, one thing that’s really important is to focus on the rhythm of the melody instead of just the notes. If just the rhythm itself makes you bob your head, then the melody likely will as well. Try writing a rhythm in just one note first, before moving them around to taste.
And here is that same rhythm turned into a variable melody:
Conclusion
You can strengthen your own melody writing, by looking to add to your own melodic “bag of tricks”. Play around with the ideas I have here, and experiment yourself. You may end up surprising yourself with what you’ll be able to write with some practice.

Happy Producing!
Zach Karry

Zach Karry

Contributor

Zach Karry (Infernvs) is a trance producer currently living in Toronto Canada. He started playing Violin at age 3, and picked up a guitar in 7th grade. Since then, he’s been writing music, and playing lead guitar in the metal band Fate Prevailed as well as in the alternative rock band The Broken Satellites.

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